Interpersonal Communication in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
People are highly social creatures; hence it is natural that communication is one of key subjects of research. Numerous theories of interpersonal communication imply that the schemes of interaction in society are extremely complex and versatile. Even though individuality is one of major values of the epoch, it appears impossible to deny the fact that perception of self is the result of interpersonal communication in many ways. The film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button explores how typical patterns of communication work in the non-typical case that the main character is. Breaking the conventions through the shift into fantasy, the work still presents standard schemes of perception and its dependence on such factors as age, gender, social position and expectations that people impose on communication.
It should be mentioned that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button presents quite an unusual social context, which allows viewers to explore stereotypical visions and behavior. The plot is based on an imaginary life story of a character who is born as a eighty-year old man and gets younger with every coming year until he dies as an infant. This reverse lifespan helps track the regularities of certain stages of maturing that the character lives through and the contradiction between psyche’s evolution, physical appearance and personal experience. Benjamin’s mother dies when she gives birth to him, and his father abandons him, scared by his ugly looks of a very old man. Brought up in a nursing house among elderly people, he is tenderly cared for by his new mother Queeny. It is here that Benjamin meets Daisy, who becomes his life-long love. He is an old man and she is six at the beginning but they move in opposite directions until they are equals in age and life experience. He knows his fate, so he leaves Daisy and their daughter Caroline, who finds out about her real father only at the moment when her mother is in her deathbed in hospital. Meanwhile, as Caroline reads Benjamin’s diary, hurricane Katrina approaches New Orleans where the story is set.
The story told in the film is quite unusual in the sense that it establishes quite an unconventional social context for the main character, who is an outsider because of his difference. He is born as a senile old man and is brought up among elderly people who are about to die, which makes his initial period of childhood far from being typical. He learns about death from his birth because he is destined to die and because his surroundings die one by one. Because of this he knows that nothing is eternal and seems to escape from normal attachment. Not only his age identity is confusing, he is also brought up by an African American mother who comes from another social layer than he does. So, it appears next to impossible for Benjamin to identify who he is because of his unconventional position in society, which contradicts other people’s expectations.
One way to define communication is by stating that it is “systemic processes in which people interact with and through symbols to create and interpret meanings” (Wood, p.12). Because film art is also based on transmitting cultural meanings viewers through elements like plot, dialogues and symbolism, it is natural that communication is an essential part of it. In the context of Benjamin Button it is useful to trace how normal and abnormal social patterns of communication work. One aspect of communication that can be elicited from the film is that it is dynamic, which means that no system of interaction between two or more people can be unchangeable for a long time. Moreover, even self-concept cannot last eternally because personality evolves throughout life. So, it would be interesting to watch then how Benjamin’s relationships with Daisy and other people change, and how he transforms his vision of himself. In his early years Benjamin has physical appearance of an elderly man but reactions of a small child. He is curious about learning new things about the world but at the same time he is dependent on his mother. Although he does not realize at the beginning that his life is so untypical, he still needs to understand who he is. He sees that his emotions and attitudes vary from one day to another and he asks himself about his real identity. This stage of development is like that of a small child who wants to learn the world and expand his knowledge but at the same time it is not exactly so because the level of self-reflection is higher with Benjamin than with a normal child. He is very attached to his mother, as it is typical for a child of his age, in fact they cannot be separated because he has to stay nearby physically and emotionally. He is not aware of his own autonomy, he has not gained enough experience and courage to get separated from his mother and face the big strange world. So, at this stage he prefers to ask questions to his mother and she is still the main source of his knowledge. She bans him things which he believes are dangerous for him, and he acts like an obedient child in most cases. He is quite reserved but meditative about who he is. Thus, the dialogue between Benjamin and Queeny reveals his concerns about his self-identity and its instability:
- BENJAMIN: “Some days I feel different than the day before.
- QUEENY: ” Everybody feels different about themselves, one way or another. But we are all going the same way”
This dialogue suggests that identity is dynamic and changing, which causes a feeling of insecurity to a certain extent. When discussing the concept of a family and mother-child relationship in the context of interpersonal communication, it should be noted that it falls under the theory of systems. In this sense, family is a system, which like any other system is not static but dynamic; moreover, it goes through a number of stages or cycles in its development. On the one hand, it is any system’s primary goal to ensure its balance and survival. Yet, it is impossible and unreasonable because they need to develop, even if this inevitably happens through crisis and suffering:
Systems seek a state of equilibrium, or homeostasis. That’s why families create routines, organizations devise policies and procedures, individuals develop habits, groups generate norms, online communities develop conventions and abbreviations, and cultures generate rituals and traditions. Yet no living system can sustain absolute balance or equilibrium. Change is inevitable and continuous (Wood, 2011, p.14)
This quotation explains the fact why relationships and communications transform in Benjamin Button. Sometimes it seems that changes happens only because some external circumstances intervene, yet these external circumstances work according to those regulations that determine a lifecycle of any system. Even though it might sound irrational, any externally imposed events as say, a death of a person, are parts of system’s cycles, not just unfortunate accidents. This is why it looks explainable why Benjamin leaves his mother’s house as a teenager and why he breaks with Daisy at the peak of their happiness. The film shows, with a note of fatalism, that a choice of a person can be limited because systemic laws influence their behavior dramatically. So, it is natural in many ways that Benjamin’s life changes at the moment when Queeny gives birth to her own child. Even though she still loves him, it is impossible for her to devote her total attention to him, so he stops being so inseparable from her. At the same time, this painful act of separation from his mother has potential of giving a huge impulse of growth. When he becomes less attached to his mother, Benjamin reveals that he has power and thirst for communication with other people and independence. It is remarkable that this stage of his life coincides with his gradual physical change: he becomes stronger and younger; his overall energy grows because he is able to walk by his own feet, physically and figuratively.
The period of experiencing a larger world happens when Benjamin starts working as a seaman on Captain Mike Clark’s boat. In fact, he still has a childish enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge because he is ready to do the work for free, even if it was not paid. He enjoys freedom and independence, as well as ability to learn new things. To a large extent, this stage is close to adolescence because this is when Benjamin experiences forbidden pleasures with women. At this point, he knows two kinds of love, that between a mother and a child, and this new physical attachment that is open for him now. It is obvious, that he is not mature for other types of love yet, so this is why it takes years for him and Daisy to grow and to bridge the gap between them. The character realizes that he is undergoes some change: “Growing up is a funny thing. Sneaks up on you. One person is there, then suddenly somebody else takes has taken her place”( The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). This saying refers both to himself and to Daisy who is a teenager now. Odd enough, even though he gets younger and she gets older, they both move in the same direction of maturing. Age is an extremely important communicative unit within the film because it determines the way people communicate and their expectations. The major conflict about Benjamin is that his appearance is deceptive about his real personality, hence expectations often fail. Age is a very important social phenomena for a reason because it is ” a factor that influences our perceptions. Compared with a person of 20, a 60 year old has more complex fund of experiences to draw on in perceiving situations” ( Wood, 2010, p. 77). At the same time, there is a certain analogy between an old man and a child, because they share the same characteristics of limitation about the world and simplicity. Life is simple when it just begins and when it ends, but the reasons are different.
A period in a foreign land fully detached from home and his usual environment is when Benjamin realizes that life is more complicated than he used to think. He learns that things are not black and white, he stops being idealistic. His identity changes because of exposing himself to a wider and more controversial scope of connections and communications. He realizes what it is to be in love with a woman for the first time and how complex people’s motives can be. Benjamin understands that life includes lost chances and regrets, yet this is not familiar to him because he is getting younger. When he experiences war and loss himself, he realizes that human life is fragile, and this new knowledge makes him deeper as personality. He knows that it is worth spending time with truly meaningful people. At this point he seem to be more ready for relationship with Daisy, but she is not as mature as he is at this time. She has not seen war, as he has, so he is careless because of her youth. He believes that her chances are still to come until she gets into an accident that makes her stop her ballet career. She is wounded physically and mentally, but the film shows how negative experiences are essential for personal growth.
When discussing interpersonal communication in the film, it is worth paying attention at the following aspect of it: “Communication is symbolic. We don’t have direct access to one another’s thoughts and feelings. Instead, we rely on symbols, which are abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous representations of other things. We might symbolize love by giving a ring, by saying “I love you,” or by closely embracing someone”. (Woods, 2011, p.15). It is natural that symbolism is an essential part of communication, as represented in the film. Moreover, non-verbal communication is an extreme case of symbolism in this context. When Daisy and Benjamin finally meet as equals, both ready to share both passion and responsibility, they hardly speak to each other. The following dialogue reveals the meaning that is often attached to non-verbal communication:
- DAISY: You haven’t said a word
- BENJAMIN: I don’t want to ruin it
The film uses non-verbal communication abundantly, and is especially successful in making characters’ gazes illustrative and full of meaning. Handshakes, embraces, touches are also typical ways of non-verbal communication, which are used in the film to demonstrate attitudes and desires that people have. Space is another aspect of communication, which reveals how close characters are to each other. Thus, for example, when he is still a child, Benjamin sleeps right next to her mother, and his overall personal space is confined mostly to where she is. He only has to leave the room when Queeny’s husband enters to spend a night with her, which exposes how different levels of communication interact and affect each other.
Experts identify several aspects of communication process, which can be traced in the film as well. First of all, it is about perception, which is “the active process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting people, objects, events, situations, and activities”. (Woods, 2011, p.47). In fact, age can be one of criteria, on which selection and interpretation is based. For example, ugliness and strangeness can be a reason to signal of danger and cause rejection. This happens when Mr. Button discovers his newborn son does not meet any his or social expectations. Further on, he regrets about his decision but he is not strong enough to follow the way of non-conformity. In contrast, Queeny is a person who is more flexible and less biased about types of people. Because her environment is full of outsiders, of those elderly people in a nursing house who have been rejected by society because of their age and uselessness, taking another outsider such as Benjamin is not a problem for her. This example demonstrates how a person and their surroundings are mutually dependent, and how environment is able to shape one’s outlook. In the same way, being old is perceived as a negative aspect by most people, who are looking for fun and energy. Captain Clark doubts if Benjamin can cope with work because he looks old, so this is how perception works together with interpretation.
When discussing perception as part of communication process and its trigger, Wood names several factors that affect perception such as physiological factors, expectations and cognitive abilities. The film demonstrates that people are different in these aspects, and that Benjamin is even more different because he cannot either perceive or be perceived in the same way as other people. As a child, he has poor health and ill body of an old man, this is why his perception works differently. For example, he cannot see or hear well, this is why his process of knowledge gaining about the world is complicated. This is why he can feel insecure but also this is the reason why his internal vision is developed so well from early childhood. Lacking effectiveness of perception organs, he develops intuition and trust to the world, which has to offer its helping hand.
Further on, it should not be ignored that expectations are highly subjective, yet they follow certain patterns: “What happens when our expectations are violated? That’s the question asked by expectancy violation theory. Research shows that when our expectations are violated, we become more cognitively alert as we struggle to understand and cope with unexpected behaviors or events”( Woods, 2011, p.56). In Benjamin Button expectancy violation is not a rare thing, especially when it is concerned with the main character. So, when his father seems a newly born baby with appearance of a wrinkled old man, it is clearly violated expectancy, and this is the reason of his inadequate and unpredictable behavior. When expectations are not violated, it is normal for a person to feel comfortable but this is also a risk of dependence on the world to meet their expectations. People expect Button to get older but he gets younger instead, which makes his surroundings frightened. This is especially distressing to Daisy who feels that she is getting old at the background of Benjamin who turns into a youngster in her eyes. This situation of broken expectations is the reason for conflicts and misunderstandings between humans.
An interesting aspect of communication is cognitive complexity, which is believed to be higher among adults than among children. In this respect, Benjamin Button’s story is a remarkable example of how the main character’s cognitive complexity is developed as he moves into mental maturity, even though his appearance changes in a reverse way. As experts point out, “cognitive complexity is the number of personal constructs used (remember, personal constructs are bipolar dimensions of judgment), how abstract they are, and how elaborately they interact to shape perceptions. Most children have fairly simple cognitive systems. They rely on few schemata, focus more on concrete constructs (tall-not tall) than abstract psychological ones (secure-not secure), and often don’t perceive relationships between different perceptions” ( Woods, 2011, p.57). It is interesting that Benjamin’s experience of death does not contribute to cognitive complexity when he is still a child. The reason for this is that in the nursing house it is a routine, so he is prepared to death and it does not expand the scope of his experiences immediately. It takes years to him to experience death in different context to make it a factor that truly expands his cognition process. It takes attachment, war, loss of a father and a mother to make the world a truly complex play, which is not just black and white.
When continuing to talk about cognitive complexity, it should be noted that person-centeredness is another feature, which makes difference. This characteristic obviously develops when Benjamin grows and matures, as he learns to differentiate individuals. “People who are cognitively complex are able to perceive others and situations in more comprehensive and integrated ways than are less cognitively complex people” (Woods, 2011, p. 58). In this context, while at first Benjamin sees all people as just good, this is further transformed into his knowledge about the fact that people are unique. Meeting Daisy when she is still a child is a revelation for him, because he realizes that people apart from his mother can be special and valued. Empathy is another communicative feature that he develops when he meets a wider range of people.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the film is quite symbolic, which makes it close to the theory of interpersonal communication. Symbols are the way to reveal the nature and meanings of human interaction, as well as its basic laws. Non-verbal communication is used abundantly, which proves that it is vital in establishing connection between people. The film demonstrates how the main characters matures even though his body gets younger. He acquires a higher cognitive complexity and realizes that there are shades apart from plain colors. His self-image changes as his environment changes, so the film demonstrates how these factors are mutually dependent. Finally, such aspects as empathy, broken expectancy and people-centeredness can be seen as elements of interpersonal communication.